1 of 2 | A handout photo made available by Russian Ministry of Emergencies shows rescue boats searching in Black Sea on Sunday in the waters off Sochi for wreckage and casualties from a government-owned Tu-154 jetliner that crashed en route to Syria. Nearly 100 people were on board the plane, including dozens of musicians from the Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble, the Russian military's official choir. Photo courtesy Russian Ministry of Emergencies/European Pressphoto Agency
KRASNODAR KRAI, Russia, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- An aging jetliner belonging to the Russian government crashed into the Black Sea off the country's west coast early Sunday -- killing nearly 100 people, including journalists and members of a prominent military choir band.
The Tupolev Tu-154 airliner departed the resort city of Sochi around 5 a.m. local time Sunday, officials said, but crashed about 20 minutes after takeoff. Bound for Syria, the three-engine jet was carrying 84 passengers and eight crew when it went down. Officials said there were no survivors.
Russia's defense ministry, which owned the plane, said it was carrying nearly 70 members of the Alexandrov Military Ensemble -- Moscow's official army choir -- to a performance at an air field in Syria's Latakia province. A few dancers were also aboard, along with Elizaveta Glinka, a prominent charity activist and humanitarian worker best known by her blogger nickname "Doctor Liza." Nine Russian journalists are also among the dead.
For many months, Moscow's military has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in the fight against rebels and Islamic State militants as part of the ongoing civil war.
Investigators immediately started recovering bodies and wreckage and are evaluating various potential causes. Terrorism, however, has already been "totally excluded," according to Russian defense official Viktor Ozerov.
"The theory of terrorism is out of the question," he said. "It was a Defense Ministry aircraft, flying in Russian airspace. That theory is out."
Viktor Gorbachev, head of the Aeroflot Civil Aviation Association, said the plane may have experienced a power outage in-flight.
"There must have been something wrong with the engines. We don't know yet and it is hard to speculate: was it fuel or engine failure?" he said. "Takeoff is, of course, the most difficult moment. The aircraft just did not have enough power or speed and went into a tailspin."
Whatever the cause, officials said the catastrophe unfolded quickly. The jetliner dropped off controllers' radar screens as it was gaining altitude over the Black Sea and the pilots never sent a distress call.
Authorities have questioned officials in charge of the plane as well as ground crew members who prepared it for flight, NBC News reported.
Vladislav Golikov sings during a concert of the Academic Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, part of the Alexandrov Ensemble, in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2014. Sunday, a Tupolev Tu-154 Russian aircraft belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense crashed into the Black Sea after taking off from Sochi -- killing eight crew members, nine Russian TV journalists and dozens of members of the choir, who were traveling to Syria to perform for Russian troops. File Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/European Pressphoto Agency
The flight originated in Moscow and was headed for Latakia for a holiday concert ahead of New Year's Eve. The Alexandrov Ensemble was "flying to congratulate Russian air force pilots in Syria with the New Year," ministry spokesman Igor Konashekov said. It landed in Sochi for refueling.
The band, founded in 1928, is the official choir and dance group for Russia's military and was named for its founder, Alexander Alexandrov. The ensemble, informally known as "Russia's singing weapon," has about 200 members and has achieved a number of international awards. In 2013, a video performance of its cover version of the James Bond song Skyfall was popular on YouTube.
"The orchestra did not fly because [the choir] was supposed to use pre-recorded music," Sergei Khlopnikov, a choir member who didn't make the trip because his daughter was sick, told the Interfax news agency.
The Soviet-era Tu-154 was built in 1984 and had logged 6,689 flight hours. The last repair was performed on two years ago, according to flight records, and the airplane underwent scheduled maintenance in September, the Defense Ministry said.
Officials said the pilot, identified as Roman Volkov, had more than 3,000 hours worth of flight experience. Investigators are focusing on mechanical malfunction and pilot error as possible causes.
Although the jet was owned and operated by the defense ministry, some believe it may not have been airworthy.
"The bulk of the Russian Defense Ministry's civilian aircraft are Soviet-made Tu-154s. Because the aircraft manufacturing industry was nearly destroyed in the 1990s, no new military transport and passenger aircraft were manufactured for years," retired general Viktor Litovkin said.
The Tu-154, a long-range workhorse aircraft, was introduced in Russia's military in 1972 but Litovkin said Moscow refuses to replace them with comparable foreign-made airliners. The national carrier, Aeroflot, retired its Tu-154 fleet in 2010 but the jets owned by government departments remain in service.
More than 100 serious safety incidents have occurred with the Tu-154 since the early 1970s. On July 10, 1985, 200 people died when one of the jets crashed in what is now Uzbekistan. It remains Russia's, and the Tu-154's, deadliest air disaster.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to lead an investigation of the crash, the Kremlin said, and Monday has been designated as a national day of mourning.